For me, the best books about writing aren’t about writing. I love to talk about writing with other writers, but for some reason reading about writing leaves me cold. I learn more about fiction from fiction. There are, however, some exceptions.
The first book on writing that I ever read (outside of school) was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and it had a big impact. Part of that was because my father gave it to me, and I think his approval of my writing was a big part of why I wanted to be a writer (we won’t talk about how his approval factored into my decision to spend ten years trying to make a living as a bass player). But the Elements of Style was short, to the point, and it made sense, especially in how it advocated being short, to the point, and making sense.
Another book that had a big impact on me as a writer was actually a textbook for a college journalism class, When Words Collide. It was a handy reference book at the time, and it was while reading this book that I learned to appreciate the nuts-and-bolts, mathematical logic behind grammar. Until that point, I had prided myself on being an intuitive writer, unhampered by unnecessary rules (my poor teachers!). Maybe it’s because of my Catholic schooling, but I don’t do well with rules without reasons. Suddenly, I understood the why of grammar.
Don’t get me wrong; if clarity or voice are about to suffer in the slightest, I’m happy to throw grammar under the bus. But it’s good to know why the sins you are committing are sins.
Probably my favorite book about writing (originally written as part of the N.Y. Times’ “Writers on Writing” series) is Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing — because of its brevity, its levity and the fact that one of the rules is “Try to Leave Out the Part Readers Tend to Skip.” While Leonard’s tone is light, his rules can be a little strident. In fact, he violates McGoran’s primary rule about writing and life: “Never Listen to Anyone Who Says Always About Anything”*. But that’s okay; I violate just about every one of his rules on almost every page I write (and sometimes, I mean like, violate violate). But I like how Elmore Leonard writes, and while I am comfortable with how my writing is different from his in many ways, I think it is better for his influence.
And he helps me cut down on hooptedoodle.
*Yes, “never” is meant ironically. Mostly.
Jon’s post is part of an ongoing series, where Liars each chime in on a burning question about publishing. Check out prior posts, and look back daily for more comments from members of the Liars Club. Better yet, subscribe to this site.